C’est le milieu de terrain, stupide

When Rant mused last October that Sir Alex Ferguson had been negligent in his efforts to improve Manchester United’s midfield, the article drew a varied and passionate response. Four months on and little has changed, with United investing nothing during the winter transfer window and injuries starting to bite on Ferguson’s midfield options.

Indeed, United will arguably go into tonight’s tie with Marseille at Stade Vélodrome with the weakest midfield at the club for a more than a decade. Ferguson will begin the tie without Ryan Giggs, Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia, each of whom is injured. Long-term victim Hargreaves will possibly never play for the club again, while Anderson is set for a period on the sidelines after suffering another knee injury at the weekend.

Fortunately for the Scot, Giggs should be fit for the match at Wigan Athletic next weekend and Valencia is back in light-training ahead of a March return to the first team. Meanwhile, Park, whose form this season has noticeably dipped, is out for a month with a hamstring strain.

Assuming that Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Nani all start in a 4-5-1 formation, maybe one and possibly two of Darron Gibson, Bébé and Gabriel Obertan will start against the French champions. It’s a frightening thought.

Alternatively, Ferguson will move Wayne Rooney into a wide left position – a role that he hates – and deploy Dimitar Berbatov as a lone-runner up front, a role that he is ill-suited for. After all, the Bulgarian plays in less than a third of United’s ‘big’ ties, where Ferguson usually opts to pack the midfield.

It instructive that on the last occasion United played Marseille, as European Champions in October 1999, the Reds started with a midfield that included Giggs, Scholes, Roy Keane and David Beckham. An unfair comparison perhaps – that quartet was unmatched in European terms until the recent all-conquering Barcelona model – but an enlightening nonetheless.

More than a decade on, whatever label is attached to Ferguson’s currently midfield policy – call it lack of value, call it Glazernomics – it is one that is likely to fail. Now beholden to the fortunes of age and injury, Ferguson’s midfield lacks any depth in quality.

Indeed, supporters are now reduced to hoping that United’s fringe players come good based not on any evidence but blind faith that Ferguson will get it right eventually. Yet, Gibson, Obertan and Bébé have each performed poorly this season. So much so that only the most optimistic of supporters can hold any long-term faith in the trio. So poor were they against Crawley Town in the FA Cup last weekend – particularly the latter pair – that it is not unfair to suggest none would make it at the Blue Square Premier club – based on the evidence of that match at least.

Even if Ferguson can cobble together a midfield for tonight’s match he will have no options from the bench. Injuries aside, Bébé and Obertan’s recruitment has in turn blocked the path for Tom Cleverley at the club, with the England Under-21 midfielder shunted out to Wigan for the season. Youngster Ryan Tunicliffe is the only other midfielder available to Ferguson for the trip to Southern France.

Yet, the future is just as uncertain as Ferguson’s team selection tonight. The 69-year-old Scot has asked Paul Scholes to remain at the club for another season. Ferguson has previously talked-up Anderson’s role as the Englishman’s successor – a boast for which there is scant tangible evidence to date.

“I am more than hopeful about Paul signing another contract,” said Ferguson yesterday.

“I think he should. His fitness isn’t in question. I think Paul feels he has to play all the games. It is not a bad thing to be that way but at his age, that is impossible. But he can still play a big part for Manchester United, this season and next.”

Meanwhile, Carrick may well join Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic in signing a contract extension. That the club tried to offload the Geordie last summer demonstrates the turnaround in either the former West Ham United player’s fortunes, or more likely Ferguson’s thinking.

These events suggest that any fans hoping for a marquee central midfield signing will be disappointed come the summer. Indeed, all talk of United’s supposed £100 million transfer budget in the wake of Rooney’s contract saga last autumn has died down. Quelle surprise, as the French might say.

Should Scholes sign for a final year at the club along with Giggs then conspiracy theorists will have yet more evidence Ferguson will go come summer 2012, handing off the challenge of rebuilding United’s midfield to another man.

Still, it is the nature of football that little surprises. United lost 1-0 in France 12 years ago, even with the aforementioned world-beating quartet in midfield. If United pulls off a win with Gibson, Bebe and Obertan steering the ship tonight it’ll be an even bigger shock.

Sacrebleu!

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Comments

  1. says

    So you are expecting us to get beat then?? And some people call me negative about our club.

    Ed, while it is so wonderful to rave about that midfield quartet at the Valedrome in ’99 it is instructive to note that that team only won one champions league. Never made another final. In my view, our treble winning team is vastly overrated when compared to great United teams and great European sides too. That team of ’99 was driven to success in the league and in the FA Cup by Keane and Schmichel. We were fated to win the Champions League final as without the Irishman from Cork we just did not turn up as our manager got his tactics wrong again. 9 years later he had not learnt his lessons. it was the defeat to Real Madrid that changed our manager’s outlook/tactics for future campaigns.

    Asking Paul Scholes to sign a contract extension is simply a case of a man who has lost his edge. Read his books and you see how he said he was never going to make the Liverpool mistake of hanging on to faded stars. Well, Gary Neville was man enough to quit. The others are too selfish to do otherwise and our manager is happy to oblige them.

    • says

      Cal – actually in the podcast I predicted United will grind out a 1-0 win. I’m sure we’ll go with five in midfield and Rooney wide left. But it is a sign of how far we’ve fallen that we’re heading off to the third best side in France looking to bore the opposition to death.

  2. Abhishek says

    Rooney/Carrick/Fletch/Scholes/Nani.
    THis will be the lineUp.Gibson might come on as a sub.Am sure we have used this mid5 in big games before.

    I personally feel too much is being made of “poor” Utd Mid.apart from Arsenal none of the BPL teams have a better Mid.Not even chelsea the way they are performing at the moment.

    Bebe is not a first teamer.he shud be considered a reserve team player.Will take 2/3 years before he reaches his potential.Getting games this season just bcoz of injuries.

    If cleaverly/Welbeck wud have been here instead of Gabby/Bebe a lot of us wud be happier,but evven they are injured at the moment.So we wud still have to had gone with the same line up.

    It wont be pretty.We may lose 0-1.But personnel wud hav nothing much to do with it.

    • mongoletsi says

      Sorry to be a cunt, but could you maybe put a bit of effort into your typing please; make it easier to decode ;o)

  3. Ted says

    Not expecting anything be honest. I’d take a 1-0 defeat now. This “1 up top” shit is fucking suicidal. Its also probably the most intimidating stadium in europe.
    60,000 sweaty arabs, not a nice thought.

  4. herbie simms says

    Good article. Everything we have been saying all along.
    Midfield problems, Berbatov is no good as a lone striker and Rooney struggles playing on the left side, yet SAF is blind to all of this. But listening to SAF talking on BBC sports, he was very upbeat and confident the team will get positive results in all of the four away games. So we could be in for a few surprises.

  5. says

    Nice one, Ed. You are far too kind. “Midfield policy”; what midfield policy? Playing Bebe is not “frightening”, its terrifying; playing Gibson is a recipe for disaster. It is bad enough to be thankful that Carrick is fit. I will be very surprised if Rooney does not start on the left. This need not be negative; think Villa for Barca & Spain.

    Scholes is a very difficult one. He is clearly still a very influential player & probably the manager’s second choice in central midfield after Fletcher,(who has had a very moderate season). But he must know that he capable of doing far less than what he would want to do. I just cannot accept that SAF is so bloody stupid not to bring in at least one top quality midfielder. I am much less confident that cuddly old Fergie will get rid of the deadwood.

  6. Ella Patterson says

    I guess I am going blind or there is a blind spot just in front of my seat at OT. I seem to have missed the noticeable decline in Park this year as I thought he was one of our best players before the Asia Cup.
    I am disappointed at the tritting out of the twaddle coming from lazy journalists who never manage to do anything but trawl websites. I do not like Gibson myself as I feel he is slow but Fergie sees something in him and that is good enough for me. Darren fletcher anyone? As for Bébé and Obertan it is much too early to consign them either to greatness or oblivion. As for Cleverley it is again too early to sing his praises. Like Rooney he is English but despite all attempts by the English Press this neither makes him great nor precludes him from greatness – it is merely a nationality tag!
    We have the tean we have, either support them or go glory hunting elsewhere!

  7. says

    Ed said:
    Cal – actually in the podcast I predicted United will grind out a 1-0 win. I’m sure we’ll go with five in midfield and Rooney wide left. But it is a sign of how far we’ve fallen that we’re heading off to the third best side in France looking to bore the opposition to death.

    To be fair Ed, we have lined up like that over many years now. The manager himself has been unlucky as he has tried to remodel the midfield. First, Hargreaves tanked out; Anderson has not fulfilled his potential while Carrick has just gone backwards. Add to these Fletcher losing form and we just do not look that formidable anymore. I really believe that Hargreaves would have made us much better than we are now. He and Fletcher would have been far more combative than the dross we have now.

    Still not an excuse for offering Scholes a new deal though.

    • Danny Salford Red says

      Scholes has had a good season for me and looks the business still whenever he plays so dont really understand the negativity around him signing a new deal. I for one am praying he does. Fergie will sort it in the summer. He has to this time.

    • says

      Just a personal opinion. I think he’s been poor. Knocked off the ball constantly, wasteful in possession and that old ‘energy’ has gone in some games too.

  8. triggs says

    Christ that was a depressing read. And you didnt even mention the possibility of O’Shea strutting his stuff in midfield tonight. One important point about the team in 1999 – that’s not been mentioned – is that they lost.

    Yes we’re struggling for quality in midfield, but Marseille have got key injuries too and players only just fit enough to play. We had all this negativity prior to the Valencia away game, but we won. United find a way.

    I know Berba’s not suited to playing alone up front, but he did a good job in Valencia and considering he aint played for two weeks he should be fresh. Plus this is an opportunity for him to prove he should start these games. A lot will depend on Rooney and Nani, we can’t afford a Rooney performance where he can’t trap a ball or a Nani performance where he consistently takes the wrong option. If Berba becomes too isolated, we’ll be in trouble.

    • mongoletsi says

      Yeah man, I fear O’Shite might feature. Although it says something that I’d prefer him in midfield than Gibson, Bebe, or Obertan!

  9. eddieTheRed says

    I think it is wrong to say that Cleverley has been shunted out of the club to make way for others; much as I would like to see him play for us this year I think SAF has done what’s best for the player rather than what’s best for the club; next year Cleverley will be back and I can see him being eased in gradually.

    As for Gibson, he is the latest in a long line of creative midfielders from the youth team that have had the creativity crushed out of them when they get into the first team; if you saw Gibson’s last performance for Ireland against Wales you would not think it was the same player, he was that good.

    Apart from the above, I agree with everything else you have said!

    • Danny Salford Red says

      Agree with all that. Was Wenger shunting Wilshire out of the club to Bolton on loan? Nope all about development and its the same with Cleverley

  10. says

    While I agree with some of this I think there’s a little too much hyperbole in it.

    Bébé is currently in his first season of professional football! I can’t emphasize how much of a culture shock that must be for him. Obertan sadly I largely agree with the analysis of his mentality. Jury must remain out for Bébé. I know reserve level isn’t the best measure for any player, but he’s shown sparks of ability in there.

    Not only that, imagine if you were dunked in and out of the first team, against teams who are drilled, determined and going to run themselves into the ground, whereas you’ve basically just had a couple of days to play as a unit. That’s all Crawley did – they were drilled, disciplined and 100% committed. Yet, every time we got the ball down and played (instead of hoofing it towards our men with pace) we looked dangerous and like we’d pull them apart. I mean, FFS, they gave Gibson so much time on the ball he picked out a few nicely weighted passes!

    Our weakeness – real, not perceived – at the minute is that for whatever reason we crumble when pressurised on the ball. Our players just hoof it long and hope. That is abysmal. Plyers like Obertan and Bébé, and even Hernandez, would be better served by playing the ball into feet, not challenging against defenders who will simply beat them to the ball in the air by virtue of physicality.

    Park has been fine this season – slow start after a punishing World Cup, and then the Asian Cup. Here’s hoping he comes back refreshed for the run in – him and Tony V, being fair. We need them!

    The midfield should however have been strengthened. I agree with that. I hope at some point in the near future one of Pogba, Tunnicliffe or Morrison gets, and takes, an opportunity in the first team. It would be a real kick up the arse for players like Fletcher, Carrick and Gibson, who in some games have looked a little complacent. Having someone young, ambitious and talented behind them would hopefully put the wind up them and get them performing again.

  11. Bill says

    As mentioned you have to question the necessity of buying Obertan and Bebe when Cleverley has come through the ranks.

    Gibson hasn’t stepped up to the plate for a while, but did start vs. Munich last season and scored a very good goal. Fergie would note things like that.

    Similar with Carrick really – we did win the league and CL with him in CM for alot of the season. This could explain why he persevers with them.

  12. bruce thomas says

    Two expressions in your article (which I agree with 100%) sum up the entire situation — “It’s a frightening thought” and “Glazernomics”. The two are one and the same, I’m afraid. We’re living on borrowed time and about to be found out.

  13. Alfonso BedoyaAlfonso Bedoya says

    “Still not an excuse for offering Scholes a new deal though.”

    As long as you’re saying that we should get a quality player, that makes Scholes redundant… then we totally agree.

  14. bruce thomas says

    We need 3 or 4 major signings.
    We won’t get them.
    We’ve already been arse raped, brain raped and generally fucked over by the Glazers. They’re the ones starting rumours that the Qataris are interested only so they can shift a few more of their worthless junk bonds.

  15. Bill says

    Scholes future is in the balance, if the next fortnight goes well he should be back in 2011-12 – if not he might retire. Carrick has actually started more games than him this season. When he plays he’s done pretty well, but he might not be happy missing half the games and want to go out differently than Neville.

  16. Ted says

    Ed said:
    Just a personal opinion. I think he’s been poor. Knocked off the ball constantly, wasteful in possession and that old ‘energy’ has gone in some games too.

    Of course he is, thats all he’s ever been. Runaroundy falling over all the timey!

    He’s done a great job reducing the numbers of stray dogs in the area, but a United player? Not a chance.

  17. bruce thomas says

    Racism?

    Korea is not a race, it’s a country. Peole use the word racist far too glibly. At worst, it’s stereotyping. Got that?? There’s a job for you at the Guardian, Triggs.

  18. Spike says

    Alfonso Bedoya said:
    You should be brain raped.

    Only Smalling and Vidic saved us, the midfield nonexistent wankers, the strikers having to get the ball from deep inside their own half, where as Marseilles have a midfield I would take any time of day compared to ours, go figure my “arserape” quote and come back when you have something useful to say.

  19. brianofnazarethbrianofnazareth says

    Ed said:
    Cal – actually in the podcast I predicted United will grind out a 1-0 win. I’m sure we’ll go with five in midfield and Rooney wide left. But it is a sign of how far we’ve fallen that we’re heading off to the third best side in France looking to bore the opposition to death.

    SPOT ON

  20. Dinkinflicker says

    At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, this summer is the biggest in our recent history. Our recent transfer dealings have strained credibility at best. Despite my massive misgivings about the Glazers and the uber-bizarre Bebe and Obertan transfers, i’ve just about been able to grudgingly accept that a strategy might be in place to let the likes of big earners like VDS, Nev, Scholes, Giggs, Owen and Hargreaves etc move on before buying in some high profile names.

    If we go through the summer without signing another keeper and bringing in at least 2 top class midfielders, then we may as well carve the tombstone and fuck off home.

  21. triggs says

    I do find Fergie’s management of the central midfield bizarre.

    Given Hargo’s continuing injuries, Carrick and Fletch’s dip in form, Gibbo’s inadequacies, Scholes’ age and Ando’s stuttering development, we’re crying out for new central midfielders and have been since 2009. Yet we havent bought a central midfielder since 2007 when Hargo and Ando arrived.

    My midfield OUTs and INs

    Obertan >>> New left footed winger who could also play in the hole behind a single striker

    Gibson >>> Cleverley

    Hargo >>> New Def Mid

    I think we need a box-to-box player with a lot of energy too (e.g. Rodwell) but I don’t think we’ll get that as well.

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